Josquin des Prez – A New Approach to Musical Expressiveness

Josquin des Prez – A New Approach to Musical Expressiveness

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Music history often points to particularly innovative and influential composers as bridges from one stylistic era to another. There’s Beethoven, breaking through his elegant and rule-bound classical training to practically invent Romanticism in music. And Wagner can reasonably be considered one of the first modern composers, even though his technique had a strong Romantic foundation. Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) is a bridge from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance. While his name might not be a household word, his importance is hard to overstate.

Much about Josquin’s life and career remains a mystery. A native of the Duchy of Burgundy, he was born in either modern-day Belgium or France. He probably studied composition with the great Johannes Ockeghem, whom I previously wrote about for Copper in Issue 124. As an employee of the Duke of Anjou, he would likely have worked at Aix-en-Provence and Paris; it is known that he spent some prolific years in Ferrara, but which years those were is under debate.

What matters most is that Josquin invented a new approach to expressiveness in music, taking the polyphonic power of choral music developed by the likes of Guillaume DuFay and Ockeghem and adding to it the use of chromatic notes and rhythmic devices to reflect the emotional meaning of the words he was setting. Claudio Monteverdi tends to get the credit for opening music’s emotional floodgate in the early 17th century, but Josquin arguably pried that gate open 100 years earlier.

A number of recent recordings explore Josquin’s sacred and secular music, most prominently a two-disc set by the Tallis Scholars under the direction of their founder, Peter Phillips, on the group’s own label, Gimell. Except for a few tracks, these are not new recordings, but reissues for Hyperion dating back to the late 1980s. But that’s no reason to dismiss them; these classic interpretations of Josquin have never been bested.

The series’ most recent disc contains three Masses. Among Josquin’s many distinctive gifts was his love of embedding puzzles in his scores, which have become fodder for generations of scholarly fun. The Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae contains a soggetto cavato (literally “carved-out subject”), a musical motive spelled with solfège syllables. Without burdening you with too many details, this is not quite the “Do, a deer” solfège used today for major and minor keys, but a medieval system based on interlocking patterns of six notes. The musical subject in this case represents the Latinized name of Josquin’s patron, Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The puzzle was an intellectual challenge for Josquin’s amusement; it doesn’t affect the sacred text of the Mass.

The Tallis Scholars’ elegant, carefully crafted performance of the final movement, the Agnus Dei, demonstrates clearly why this ensemble has represented the standard in early-music choral interpretations for decades.


Also on this disc is the Missa D’ung aultre amer, one of hundreds of 15th- and 16th-century Masses that combine liturgical words with music from a secular source. This one is a tribute to Josquin’s teacher, Ockeghem, using the latter’s secular song, “D’ung aultre amer” (“Of Another Love), as musical material to be passed around from voice to voice in imitative counterpoint. This was a common practice at the time. What’s unusual about this Mass is the Benedictus section of the Sanctus movement. Instead of continuing with the borrowed material, Josquin suddenly quotes extensively from his own polyphonic motet, Tu solus qui facis mirabilia (“You alone who do wonders”).

The Tallis Scholars helpfully included the motet itself:


Another fine vocal group, Stile Antico, recently released Josquin des Prez: The Golden Renaissance on Decca to mark the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death. Among the record’s offerings is the famed Missa Pange lingua, in which Josquin takes a Gregorian chant, “Pange lingua gloriosi” (“Sing, tongue, the glory”), and uses it as imitative material in all the mass movements.

The leaderless London-based Stile Antico numbers among the top early-music groups formed in the past 20 years. Their intonation, phrasing, and balance of parts brings clarity to Josquin’s complex counterpoint, as you can hear in the Kyrie.


Another treat on this album is the first-ever recording of Josquin’s song “Vivrai je tousjours” (“Must I Always Live”). It’s a wonderful example of the extreme expressivity of Josquin’s music. As a promotional video by Stile Antico puts it, the setting is a banquet of emotions: “sometimes angry or exasperated, sometimes pleading or conciliatory, or sometimes simply wallowing in sheer melancholy.” The performance captures all those details.


While Josquin’s vocal polyphony is endlessly spectacular, it’s important to remember that his music also existed on a secondary track during his lifetime, in arrangements for instruments. The 16th century was the final period when instrumental music had not quite come into its own. (The Baroque period changed that forever.) Much of the music played on instruments in the Renaissance and earlier was based on vocal music, and Josquin’s multi-voiced songs were favored among players of lute and guitar (and the related gittern and vihuela).

Some of those contemporaneous arrangements still exist. On Josquin & Antonello, his new solo lute album for the Concerto label, Michele Cinquina has collected arrangements by many lutenists and guitarists of the time. Marco dal’Aquilo’s (c. 1480-c. 1538) rendition of the love song “Chuor languor” demonstrates the complexity of Josquin’s vocal architecture, captured clearly if a bit too methodically on Cinquina’s fingerboard.


This record also includes rarely heard instrumental versions of Josquin’s sacred music. The motet “Circumdederunt me” was rendered for lute by Simon Gintzler (c. 1490-1550). Cinquina’s performance groups the notes of each phrase in such an idiomatically lute-like way that it’s hard to believe this was once meant to be performed by a church choir.


Only a small percentage of 16th-century instrumental arrangements of Josquin have survived, partly because many were probably improvised rather than written down, and partly because the arrangers weren’t deemed important enough for their manuscripts to be preserved. Therefore, some current performers have taken it upon themselves to make their own arrangements. For Josquin des Prez: Inviolata, on the Inventa Records label, Jacob Heringman plays his own settings for lute and vihuela.

This is the second Josquin album by the American-born, England-based lutenist. The previous one was 20 years ago. Inviolata focuses on Josquin’s sacred music, where there is a particular dearth of arrangements. Among the works Heringman tackles is one of the composer’s greatest hits even today, appearing in countless college music history texts, the magnificent motet Ave Maria, virgo serena (Hail, Mary, Serene Virgin). Heringman’s playing is expressive and pliant, and his arrangements not overly complicated, allowing the essential beauty of the Josquin sound to ring clear.


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